The Scandal of Domestic Violence

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By Concha Garcia Hernandez [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copylef/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I have long been aware of the global prevalence of violence against women but have had my eyes opened to this afresh by No Place for Abuse by Catherine Clark Kroeger and Nancy Nason-Clark. The stark truth is that globally 1 in 3 women will face physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, or sexual violence from someone who is not their partner (Source: World Health Organization). The statistics are not much better in the U.S., where 1 in 4 women will experience severe violence at the hands of a partner in their lives. A woman is beaten every 9 seconds. (Source: Huffington Post, 30 Shocking Domestic Violence Statistics that Remind us It’s An Epidemic).

The authors of the book are writing particularly for church contexts, where the incidence of domestic violence may be nearly as high, and in some contexts may actually be exacerbated by theological teaching. Since a number of you who follow this blog attend churches fairly regularly, consider the possibility that roughly 25 percent of those present have experienced domestic violence at some time, and that it is likely that someone may be suffering this, possibly in silence, at present. I do consider this a scandal, one where real lives are endangered, where trauma is going unhealed, where oppression is allowed to go unchecked, where wrongdoing is concealed, and because of all this, the church is robbed of spiritual power.

A statement by the authors of this book caught my eye:

“Interviews and focus groups with large numbers of men who have acted abusively, women who have been abused and those friends and clergy who have walked alongside them reveal that when clergy preach a message condemning family violence, discuss abuse in their premarital counseling, offer support, give referral suggestions, provide ongoing encouragement and hold those who act abusively accountable for their actions, the impact is profound.”

This is significant in light of a study by Sojourners cited in a Christianity Today article, that 65 percent of pastors have spoken one or fewer times about domestic and sexual violence and ten percent have never spoken about it. And sometimes church teaching can exacerbate the problem. While there is a divide between egalitarians and complementarians, thoughtful people in both camps would agree categorically in condemning spousal violence. However, teaching that emphasizes the need for husbands to assert their authority and their need to make their wives submit (the latter for which there is no basis in scripture) may encourage forceful means and be used to justify violence (most complementarians would not teach this). Likewise, the way divorce may be taught about in some contexts may lead women to stay in dangerous situations.

It seems that there are some important steps pastors and church leaders can take:

  • One is to educate oneself on the incidence of domestic violence, how lay caregivers can offer support (often other women in a church community can offer significant support), the resources available to refer both the abused and abusers for help, and how to implement plans to make these available to those suffering abuse.
  • The silence around domestic violence must be broken, and done so regularly, communicating the unacceptability of perpetrating violence, that one who is treated violently never deserves that treatment, and communicating avenues for both the abused and abuser to acknowledge what is happening and find help.
  • Offer training for all church staff and Sunday School teachers.
  • Include information and discussion about domestic violence in all pre-marital counselling.
  • Include training in youth programs on dating violence.

As a man, it seems to me that we could do more to talk about the fruit of the Spirit (the virtues that result from the presence of God’s Spirit in the lives of all Christ followers) as virtues equally applicable to men, whatever our cultural ideals of “masculinity.” Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) are qualities commended by a man (Paul) for men and women. Among the requirements the Apostle sets for church leaders is that they are “self controlled…not violent but gentle” (1 Timothy 3:2, 3). Do we uphold people of both gender, and in particular, men who exemplify these qualities, as models for others? Are these the defining qualities of biblical manhood, indeed, biblical personhood?

It saddens me that the reality is that few women apart from very young children anywhere in the world live without the lingering fear and wariness of the possibility of sexual or physical violence against them. It disturbs me that simply because of my gender, I represent a possible threat. It says something of how broken is our fallen world and it staggers me. I honestly don’t know how to change the world in this instance. But I do want to work with others who share my faith commitments to change the church, so that, in the words of the title of the book I’m reading, it is “no place for abuse.” It would be no small thing for the global church to address itself to these matters, and if so, this would surely have ripple effects more widely. And who knows what power of God might be unleashed when our sisters know we are committed to their physical and emotional safety, and to fully respect their humanity and giftedness among us. May it be so!

Apologies 101

ApologyWe’ve seen a recent example of attempts to apologize gone bad with one of our Olympic athletes. He is hardly the first public figure to have a hard time with apologies. And he is a great illustration of the truth that a bad apology may actually be worse than keeping your mouth shut (at least until you can render a good apology). I wonder if we do better.

Bad apologies.

Bad apologies may look like apologies because they use the words “I’m sorry” but they do not express sincere and unqualified remorse and own up to our own responsibility for what we’ve done wrong and how we’ve hurt someone. These kind of apologies often take the form of:

  • Blaming the victim. These usually follow the form of “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The person is really saying that the person they’ve offended is the problem. It is patronizing, it shifts blame, and only intensifies the situation.
  • Excusing bad behavior. A person may say something like, “I’m sorry for what I said, but if you knew how late I was up with the kids, you’d shoot your mouth off too.” Maybe and maybe not. It’s another way of shifting responsibility and excusing what is actually not excusable.
  • Distorting the truth of one’s offense. The athlete mentioned above, in a TV interview said he “over-exaggerated” his story. He would have done far better to say, “I lied to cover up my own inebriated behavior and this reflected badly on my Brazilian hosts.”

Preparing to make a good apology.

Good apologies don’t just happen. They involve self-reflective and empathic preparation. Here are some of the things I’ve tried to consider when I’ve needed to apologize–which I’ve had to do many times!

  • Do I understand and can I clearly articulate what I’ve said or done wrong without sugar-coating it or excusing it or justifying it. If I’m not clear on what I’ve done wrong, it will be a false apology. Either I’m apologizing for something I’ve not done, or I am inadequately apologizing for what I have done.
  • Do I understand how my words or actions might have affected the other person? What if the tables were turned and this were done to me. How would I feel? We should also be prepared that we may not know all of the impact of our words or actions, and be prepared to listen, to take that on board and to express our understanding of that additional impact.
  • Am I truly sorry for what I have done and its effects, or do I simply want the bad feelings to go away? Getting to “truly sorry” often means taking account of the damage to a relationship that means something to me that my words or actions caused.
  • Am I prepared to make appropriate amends for what I have done wrong? This could include financial repayment of damages, acknowledging our responsibility if our words and actions have falsely damaged the reputation of another, and accepting any legal penalties associated with my action if I have broken the law.
  • Am I willing to commit myself to specific actions to rebuild trust in the relationship if the other is so disposed?

If you’ve not worked through questions like these, you are not ready to make a good apology and you will probably just make things worse. Working through these questions doesn’t guarantee that another will receive your apology but it will raise the possibility that they will consider, if this is your object, that you are well and truly sorry.

If there is the possibility of legal action, one may want to consult with a trained mediator or attorney before going to the other party to understand how a statement of apology may affect such legal action. Most matters don’t rise to this level and a good apology often averts more serious conflict.

Making the good apology. 

You need to find your own words to express several things, and you might even write, or memorize at least your initial words.

  • The apology proper. This is saying “I’m sorry” and keeping the language “I” language.
  • A statement of how you have offended that acknowledges your responsibility. “I dominated the conversation in our meeting and cut you off several times when you tried to make a point. That was wrong and I had no excuse for acting like that.”
  • A statement that acknowledges awareness of how this hurt the other party. “The way I acted must have communicated that I didn’t think what you had to say was very important. It robbed our group of your ideas and contribution. Are there other ways this hurt you?”
  • Discuss how you could make amends or rebuild trust in the relationship. “I don’t want this to happen in future meetings. I will try to limit my own contributions and not interrupt you. Are there other things that would be helpful to your participation in our meetings?”

A few other things:

  • Neither rush or delay apologizing. Don’t try to apologize in the heat of the moment. But don’t let it ride either. Try to talk on the same day if possible.
  • Do it in person. This is not the time to rely on email.
  • Do it when you won’t be rushed.
  • Do it privately, unless your offense was a public offense.
  • Try to listen twice as much as you speak.

I think the key to a good apology, and one of the hardest things for most of us, myself included, is to admit that we were wrong, particularly if we were not the only ones. Yet I find that when I go into self-protection mode, everyone else does as well. A good friend of mine who is a good leader and a peacemaker, says that in such situations, he always assumes that it is his turn to go first. Acknowledging wrong can be liberating. It unlocks conflict, it can liberate us from a futile narrative, and open up possibilities of a different future. Most of all it can lead to the healing of the torn fabric of relationships. It all begins with a good apology.

 

Review: Broke

Broke

Broke, Caryn Rivadeneira. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: The author reflects on the experience of losing nearly all financially, and what she learned by being broke and broken about the provision and abundance of God.

I think I may be an atypical reader of this book. From the endorsements, all by women, it appears that this is a book written by a woman for a female audience. It may even have been marketed as such. And I think this a big mistake. This is an important book for men to read because our relationship to money, and how that shapes our relationship to God is a vital matter for men to consider. It is my observation that for many men, where God has broken through in their lives is when they were broke, and broken, financially and cast upon the resources of God, and the Christian community.

That is the story of this book. Caryn Rivadeneira and her husband Rafi began with a storybook marriage. He was an investment manager, she a talented, college-educated writer. Together, on their wedding day, they had a bright future before them. They were the people who liked to give generously and help others. And then the bottom fell out as Rafi tired of his work, and then in the economic downturn, had difficulties finding other work, and Caryn just couldn’t make it on her writing gigs. Suddenly, they were dependent on the help of family and gifts and loans of friends just to stay afloat.

She recounts her struggle as it seems God doesn’t hear her cries to be delivered from their financial straits, and then the gradual and growing realization that, for a while at least, there were other things God wanted to be up to in her life. Coming to terms with mystery. Understanding that prayers for daily bread can be just that. Learning that the things we may run from, like enrolling your children in public schools, may be God’s invitation. Learning to wait for God when the shock and numbness of loss leave one feeling bereft of belief. She learns anew to keep company with Jesus and to cultivate the imagination of faith, and sometimes to be dazzled with the wonder of all the goodness that remains in the world, even in one’s “brokenness.”

The journey she describes is a journey many men face as well. Though there are more two-income families, the lingering sense of men’s call to be the “breadwinner” and to forge one’s sense of identity around doing this well may need to yield at some point to a deeper awareness of God as the provider of bread, of the gifts of life one does not work for, and an identity finds its roots at a deeper level that what one does and earns. If there was one thing I wish there had been more of was that we would have heard more of Rafi’s experience of this time, more of how they traversed this season together. I don’t know the reasons that Caryn chose to write this book primarily around her own perspective. Perhaps it was to respect her husband’s journey. Whatever the case, it may be that the “like and unlike” narrative of a woman’s struggle with financial destitution may speak at a different level to men than simply another man’s perspective.

We are left without a clear resolution of their financial challenges although we get the sense that things have gotten better. More important than finding financial security, Rivadeneira finds God anew. She writes:

     “We survived. I kept breathing. I kept stepping. And somewhere in the cracks, along the ragged edges of my marriage, in the desperate gasps of sudden poverty and all the questions that came with it, there was God. Big and glittering, soft and warm, smiling and beckoning. Somehow in the shimmers of all that, I began to taste and see, and feel and know, and hear and smell that God is good, and he was there in the broke bits. That he was using our time near the poverty line, treading in debt, to draw me near, to make me over, to answer a prayer bigger than my material needs. In this season of spiritual and financial brokenness, in this time of longing to know what God was up to and to experience his goodness and presence, God worked me over by showing me where and how I could find him. Which is all over the place. In every last thing, He satisfied my wonderlust–my unquenchable desire to feel his presence and to experience his glory. And I found him. And I found him good.”

The hope this book offers is not a “prosperity gospel” but the abundance of God Himself. Sometimes we just have to be broke before we find it.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Elephant Ears

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Elephant ears with different toppings. By Arge300exx (Own work) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know about you but as Canfield Fair time approaches, I find myself hankering for an elephant ear, or at least a few bites of one! This was always the perfect snack food for an afternoon at the fair. You could stroll down one of the midways with your friends and share one of these all around. The light, crispy fried dough with sugar and cinnamon on top was absolutely delectable, and after you finished the ear, there was the finger licking! And there was always enough to go around for at least four of you, and if you wanted more, someone else in your group could buy.

I never worked at one of the concessions, but I can only imagine that this was hot work, rolling out dough and pulling ears out of the frying oil. I also suspect that it was pretty hard to avoid a few burns, hopefully none severe. God bless those folks who worked all day to serve us up such tasty fair food.

Of course there are a number of recipes online for how to make these at home. Here is a video from AllRecipes posted on YouTube. My mouth was watering just watching them make this. I liked the idea of 6 tablespoons of shortening or butter in this recipe (and then more butter on top of the fried dough which helps the sugar and cinnamon mix to stick).

This is another one of those foods that goes under a variety of names. At the Canfield Fair, you wouldn’t know what people were talking about if you called them anything other than elephant ears. But they are also called fried dough (which is what they are but not particularly imaginative), doughboys, fry bread, scones (unlike the scones I’m familiar with), flying saucers (I can see that), beaver tails, buñuelos, and pizza fritte. I kind of like beaver tails but wonder if they are shaped differently to look more like a beaver tail.

After you finished the elephant ear, it was time to wash it down with a lemon shake-up (more sugar!).  Together, they made for the perfect treat on a hot fair afternoon, not too heavy on the stomach for all those rides, and not to hard on the wallet either.

If you make it to the Fair this year, eat an elephant ear for me!

Does Barnes & Noble Need to Think Like an Indie?

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Barnes & Noble former flagship store, closed in 2014. By Beyond My Ken (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses-SA/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Barnes & Noble just fired their CEO, Ron Boire, hired just over a year ago, as sales figures for the chain continue to decline, attributed to store closings, poor NOOK sales, and declines in sales at BN.com. At the same time, Barnes & Noble is experimenting with “concept stores” with larger cafés that serve alcohol.

I wonder if Barnes & Noble needs to start thinking much more like the indie booksellers, who are actually opening stores, seeing at least modest sale increases and are surviving the greatly exaggerated “death of reading.” First of all, I don’t think they are ever going to compete with the uber online bookseller. That despite the fact that BN.com has, in my opinion a much cleaner look and integrates well with its local stores, where you can order an item to be reserved in your local store (if it is in stock) and pick it up in an hour. Prime Now, which involves a Prime subscription and will deliver in two hours to homes in many areas has very limited selections in books eligible for such delivery, although they offer many other items not available through BN.com.

From all I can tell, indie booksellers work hard to draw people into their stores, particularly repeat customers. It seems that there are several key components to this:

  • Quality service from booksellers who love books. These are people who help you find a book, call you when a book you might like is in their store, and recommend books that fit your reading tastes. There are some of us who find the human touch much more appealing than an algorithm. I have to admit, the booksellers I’ve dealt with at our local Barnes & Noble stores have fit this description in many regards, although it seems I rarely deal with the same person twice.
  • Author events. Surveying our local Barnes & Noble store websites, only one of the stores in my area had any author events scheduled. This store had three posted between August 18 and mid-November 2016. The other events at all stores were events for children–a lot of events for children. I will give them credit for encouraging youthful readers, but what about events for teen readers, for young adult readers, for graphic novel readers? What about events for plain old adult readers?
  • Host book clubs and help launch and source community-based groups. According to a Publishers Weekly article, such groups have been an important part of indie stores bottom line. I could not find any evidence of efforts to encourage book clubs on local Barnes & Noble store websites, nor have I seen this in stores.
  • Host other fun reading events. Admittedly some stores have capitalized on parties around the latest Harry Potter release. Silent reading parties have become trendy in some places, a place to go and read quietly with others, perhaps with wine and cheese (which may be part of the idea for stores serving alcohol and having expanded cafés).
  • Use the web and social media not just to sell stuff but to relate to customers. Many indie stores, particularly used and rare stores in out-of-the-way places have a significant percentage of sales online. I think of one store I’ve ordered from on several occasions in an out-of-the-way part of eastern PA whose owner I’ve interacted with regularly via blogs and Facebook because of shared book interests. I’m a customer because of those interactions and even promote (with no personal benefit) his store on this site.
  • Give managers and booksellers a stake beyond just keeping their jobs. For indie sellers, this is their livelihood, lucrative or not. I could not ascertain from online searching whether Barnes & Noble provides any kind of sales or profit-sharing incentives. With that, I would also give a certain amount of creative latitude to these folks to market to their particular community’s needs and interests. There should be rewards for creativity and hard work beyond salaries or hourly wages, if it benefits the bottom line.

I don’t know what to say about Nook. It strikes me as the Betamax of the e-reader world–superior in many respects to Kindle in both hardware and software aspects, but a loser in the marketplace. Part of the challenge is the leveling off and decline of e-sales in general. Unless they can create the marketing cachet enjoyed by Apple products by combining elegance and technology innovations, I personally think they need to cut their losses and support existing e-readers and users of their phone and tablet apps.

I’d like to see Barnes & Noble make it. They occupy a niche distinctive from used bookstores as the only seller of a deep and wide selection of new books physically accessible in many communities. I just hope that they will decide to focus significant attention on the core of their business, and not just on fancier cafés. The indie sellers seem to understand that outstanding customer service and relations are key to their survival. I hope Barnes & Noble has not gotten too big to understand the same.

Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie. New York: Grove Press, 2013 (20th Anniversary edition, first published 1993).

Summary: A collection of short stories all relating to growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation.

Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 and grew up on a Spokane Indian reservation. This collection of short stories followed a critically acclaimed book of poetry, and so is one of Alexie’s earliest works. In the introduction to the twentieth anniversary edition, Alexie describes these stories as “thinly disguised memoir.” And to be truthful, it has that feel to it. He describes his style as “reservation realism” and in this collection one finds a mix of the starkly realistic and the fantastic.

What is starkly realistic is his portrayal of life on the reservation. Of course there is a strong web of friendships, families, kinship and love relationships. There is the sense of a people attempting to keep the core of a cultural memory together when much of its substance has been gutted. It’s also a portrayal of financial destitution, un- and under-employment, fighting, government issue cheese and housing, and alcohol and substance abuse. Alexie admits that his own father was an alcoholic and that in his extended family only a dozen are currently sober and only a few that never drank.

One of the most interesting characters in this whole mix is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix” accompanies the narrator and covers most of the cost of flying from Spokane to Phoenix to re-cover his alcoholic father’s remains. Thomas is a story-teller to whom no one listens. In a subsequent story more on the fantastic, Kafka-esque side, Thomas goes on trial for his storytelling, going to prison for murder as he tells the story in first person of another Indian who had killed two soldiers a century before.

From the absurd, Alexie moves to the sad in telling the story of the death of Samuel Builds-the-Fire, a hotel maid who uses his money to pay Indian prostitutes to take the day off, is laid off, gets drunk for the first time in his life, trips and falls on railroad tracks and does not get up as an oncoming train approaches.

There is the funny and sad. The title says it all in “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore.” In another, the narrator talks about his father, who heard Jimi Hendrix play the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, and whose son would always turn it on for him when he arrived home from a night of drinking. In “Amusements” a young couple at a carnival spot an old drunk from the reservation and load him onto a coaster, on which he rides until he comes to and gets sick to his stomach.

So much of this seems like autobiography. “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” begins in 1966, chronicles the growing up of a boy dropped on his head (Alexie was hydrocephalic) yet has a fairly normal boyhood while the narrator plays basketball, similar to Alexie’s high school self. “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” describes a young man who went off to Gonzaga, felt out of place and left without graduating. Alexie also went to Gonzaga, leaving after two years, although he completed a degree at Washington State.

Alexie gives us twenty-four stories that explore the life of a people displaced, consigned to make some sense of life in a world they’ve not chosen, fighting addictions that may have been the worst depredation of them all upon their lives. You have accounts of people who want to live, love and make their way in the world while holding onto a cultural heritage, a way of living in the world out of step with the American culture in which they are embedded. It is admittedly one perspective but it does begin to help us understand “the American experience” of these First Peoples and the stark realities of reservation life.

  [Note: Adult language and situations.]

Book Blog Superlatives

SuperlativesOne of Jimmy Fallon’s regular routines is Tonight Show Superlatives. I’ve noticed that book bloggers have their own vocabulary of superlatives and other descriptors to call attention to a particular book or set of books. “Best” or “greatest” just get pedestrian after a while. Strictly speaking, a “superlative” denotes something of the highest quality or degree and often comes in the form of “most …” or “____-est” and involve the comparison of more than two things. Most of the words I’ve found book bloggers using don’t fall strictly into these grammatical forms but if you are looking for some adjectives to spice up your book blog titles, you might try some of these:

  • Must-readThis refers to a book, or in some cases a list of books, that you don’t dare exit this life without reading. The only problem I have is that I’ve seen enough such lists that I need a life span three times as long as is granted to us mortals to possibly read all these “must-reads.” Most will be “might-reads” at best. Not as superlative.
  • Freaking good. I came across this one just this week. The term “freaking” is one of emphasis, whether of anger or appreciation. It is a euphemism for a similar sounding vulgarity beginning with the same letter. Not one to use in a blog for the church ladies! As a child of the 60’s and 70’s it conjures up images of being “freaked out” on drugs. I suppose some books have that effect.
  • Standalone. I like this one! It suggests something that is not like the others. The only challenge is you can’t use it very often. Too many “standalones” no longer stand alone.
  • Rad. Frankly, I was kind of surprised to see this one still around. I understand that it traces back to Gen-Xers who used it as a shorthand for “radical”, something beyond “cool.” Good to use for a freaking-good standalone that harks back to earlier times!
  • Crazy. Another term that has the idea of “extreme,” perhaps in an off-beat eccentric way. Strikes me as a good superlative for anything written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez!

Then there are some ones that I think get over-used (and “must-read” probably could fall in this category):

  • Awesome. Seriously, I saw this just this week. Seems to be so overused. When everything is awesome, is anything?
  • Iconic. Strictly speaking this has to do with icons. Before they were ever little images on a computer screen, they were religious images in which one encountered the one imaged. The idea seems to be a book that is symbolic of its genre. This one might be over-used and under-understood.
  • Excellent. There is standard English “excellent” and then there is Bill and Ted “excellent.” This one might be tired out.

However…

  • Bodacious, another superlative from the movie just might be under-used. Apparently it is slang from the U.S. South that may combine “bold” and “audacious.” Personally, I like the idea of some bodacious Baldacci!
  • Wicked good. Here’s another regional term from New England (and maybe old England) coming into wider use. “Wicked” is another one of those terms that substitutes for “really” (which can get very tiresome) but the phrase carries this interesting contradiction, which just might also not be a bad summary of most of us humans. I like to think of the best mysteries as “wicked good” because they usually involve both a murder (and a murderer) and a sleuth committed to ferreting out evil and exposing it.

I’ve had a bodaciously wicked good time coming up with these. But I bet you could add to the list, and help me spice up my book blogs as well!

Review: Embracing the Body

Embracing the Body

Embracing the BodyTara M. Owens. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: An invitation to move beyond guilt and shame around our embodied selves to discover the goodness of our bodies and how God made us, meets us, and works through our bodied lives.

Working in ministry in academia, I’ve joked that many academics seem to think bodies are just convenient (or sometimes inconvenient) means to transport their brains. But I’m not so different in vacillating between being out of touch with my body and its messages to me, and living with guilt and shame, or just frustration at the desires, impulses, and physical failings of my body.

What Tara Owens invites us into in this book is to discover how being spiritual involves embracing the physical being that is us, rather than denying our bodies. And, probably for all of us, that involves getting beyond the discomfort we often experience with our own bodies. She writes at the beginning of the book:

“If you asked me if I was always comfortable in my body (and required that I answer honestly), I would have to say, No . . . no, I’m not. I’m of the opinion that there isn’t anyone alive who is at home in his or her body 100 percent of the time, and I don’t believe that I formed this opinion just to justify my own neuroses.”

She begins by exploring why this is, why we are afraid, how in the history of the life of the church we lost our bodies in a kind of gnostic spirituality. Often, our broken alienation from our own bodies is paralleled by a church body extremely uncomfortable with anything to do with the body, particularly the sexual aspects of our embodied life. We deny that we are of the dust of the earth even though Jesus came and fully lived out an embodied life to death and bodily resurrection. We have trouble with Thomas even though Thomas of all of them knew that if resurrection didn’t mean embodied life, it didn’t mean anything.

She challenges us to face our fears as we face ourselves. We are neither angel nor animal but live in a space between. We quest for beauty and curse the ugly parts of us instead of seeing every part of us as blessed. We crave touch yet fear temptation and rob ourselves of the beauty of the touches that connect us to others. We fear that desire may destroy us not recognizing that Jesus repeatedly asks “what do you want” of people.

In the third part of the book, Owens invites us toward a wholeness in the embrace of the tension of longing for the holy while having two feet firmly on the ground as symbolized by God command to Moses to take his shoes off before the burning bush and the holy ground. She invites us into a life of being comfortable enough in our skin to pray with every part of our being. She calls us to attend to the creation with our senses. One of the most powerful chapters was on our sexuality as she recounted how her fiance invited her into the making of love long before they consummated that love in physical intimacy. She encourages us to own our sexual history, and that of our families, and offer all of this to the redemptive care of the Lover of our souls. And finally she speaks of the experience of how as bodies, in a body of believers, we take the body and blood of Christ, which she describes in these words, “Receive what you are, the body of Christ…. Receive what you are, the blood of Christ.”

Each chapter concludes with a Touch Point, an exercise to help us enter into the particular reality of embodied life we’ve been reading about in each chapter. There is also a group discussion guide at the end, with one or two questions for each chapter.

I am a singer and recently attended a workshop that taught us about singing with our whole bodies, and not just with our mouths. We sing from our feet, through our calves, our relaxed knees, our thighs and hips, pelvis and abdomen, torso and shoulders, neck and head. When it is good, all are aligned and working together. So much more than eyes, notes, ears, and voices. We feel rhythms in our bodies as well as read them off a score. In one exercise, we stood hand opposite hand without touching with a partner (another man in my case), moving our hands, following one another to a beautiful peace of music, shedding self-consciousness as we moved with each other and the music, ending in a sense that this was profoundly good and beautiful.

In some sense, Owens’ book seems to me to capture this same idea, helping us to sing and move and live the Lord’s song from head to foot and with every part between. She helps us face our fears with her own stories of fear and the vulnerability both of stepping beyond those fears and sharing them. She helps us recognize all the ways God comes to us in our bodies and woos us to Himself and his dreams for us. In all of this she helps us see that we can only express our true selves through our physical selves.

Review: The Noise of Time

The noise of time

The Noise of TimeJulian Barnes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

Summary: A work of fiction, exploring the inner world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, as he seeks both to survive and maintain artistic integrity in the totalitarian milieu of Soviet Russia under Stalin and Khrushchev.

A meme spoofing the “Mozart effect” that came across my newsfeed today underscores the dilemma composer Dmitri Shostakovich faced in these words:

 The Shostakovich effect: Child only expresses themselves in parent-approved ways.

Shostakovich lived under a tension between artistic integrity and the requirements of a regime that decided that art must be for the people and advance the interests of Power. Novelist Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize, explores the interior life of Shostakovich in a work of fiction through an “inner monologue,” over the course of the composer’s life, as he wrestles with the relationship between artistic and personal integrity, between pursuing one’s artistic muse, and living to compose another day.

The novel proceeds by chronicling three “conversations with Power” that occur at twelve year intervals. The first follows a 1936 performance of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which had received much foreign and national acclaim and had attracted the attention of Stalin, who attended a performance and was not please as evidenced in an article in Pravda titled “Muddle and Not Music”, denouncing Shostakovich as a “formalist”. Not only were his works suppressed but he is called in for an interview with Zakrevsky at which he must denounce his work and confess his errors in a second interview. The interview never occurs and Zakrevsky disappears, as do a number of artists. He is not called back, nor “disappeared,” but lives under a cloud and turns to composing film music, which Stalin favors, and the Fifth Symphony, a more conservative work that gained great acclaim and put him back in favor.

The second conversation with Power comes after a second period, following World War Two, when his works had once again fallen in disfavor. He receives a personal phone call from Stalin in 1948, requiring him to go to New York for the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace. He attempts to resist but relents, even beginning to give a speech written for him, only to have the remainder given by a translator. This is followed by an embarrassing confrontation with Nicolai Nabokov, where he is questioned as to whether what was read truly represented his views, to which he assents. Still, because of this, and his composition of Song of the Forests, he enjoys Stalin’s favor and is rehabilitated after the denunciations in the previous years.

The third conversation comes in 1960, under Nikita Khrushchev, where he is asked to become General Secretary of the Composers’ Union, which requires him to join the Communist Party. On the one hand, he can help and represent composers, and yet this appeared and has been criticized by many as another concession to power. Indeed, his access to dachas, limousines, and other perquisites enjoyed by party members set him apart from the struggles of other artists, and also give him greater latitude in his composing work.

And here is the struggle narrated via Shostakovich’s interior monologue. On the one hand, we see a composer who only ever is seeking to write music answering to his artistic vision. Yet we see a man who also lives in fear and conflict with himself, and in his relationships and expects (wants?) to be dead by 1972 (he died in 1975 from lung cancer).

We don’t tend to hold up as heroes those who appear to “toady” to Power. And yet there is the undeniable power of works like Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, written after some of these accommodations. Barnes novel raises questions of whether the personal conflicts might even shape the artistry of such works. He portrays an artist who hopes in the end his music will rise above “the noise of time” on its own merit rather than heroism or accommodations of the artist to Power. Time will tell, but Barnes, in an elegant and compact work, delves into the complexities that resist our simple verdicts.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Dog Days of Summer

Sidney_Hall_-_Urania's_Mirror_-_Canis_Major,_Lepus,_Columba_Noachi_&_Cela_Sculptoris

Canis Major as portrayed on a set of constellation cards printed in London c. 1825, by Sidney Hall. Image available from the U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

 

We’re in the middle of the “dog days of summer” right now. It’s those days where it is so hot and humid that you can work up a sweat sitting still. If you leave the A/C at all (and many of us growing up in Youngstown didn’t have A/C) you were sticky and sweaty five minutes after your last bath or shower.

Many of us think of “dog days” as days were all our dogs would do is lay in the shade and pant. And while that is true, and making sure that our dogs and other pets get enough fluid and are NEVER left unattended in a vehicle, the name has nothing to do with the four legged creatures we call pets, but rather one that roams the heavens, the constellation canis major or “The Great Dog”, whose most visible star, Sirius, or the “dog star” rises just before the sun in the period of late July to about mid-August. The term comes from the association between this star and the time of the year that is often the most sultry in many northern countries.

The “dog days” were often those when it felt like you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. A haze seemed to descend on the Mahoning Valley. We could see much of the Mahoning Valley from the second floor back windows of our house. During the “dog days” the features of the Home Savings building, Stambaugh Auditorium, and other landmarks we could see all got kind of soft and fuzzy. When there was no breeze, these were the days of pollution alerts when some people had difficulties breathing.

Those were the days I tried to spend as much time as possible at Borts Pool. Usually the pool was packed, as were all the Youngstown pools. I don’t think I realized then how blessed as kids we were. Most of our parents didn’t have the luxury of an afternoon at the pool. The guys in the factories and mills had it worst. My wife speaks of how her dad would take salt tablets and how his shirts would be stained from sweat after a shift at General Fireproofing. And our moms probably didn’t have it any easier if they had to do housework in a home without A/C.

I know I hated delivering papers on those days, having a canvas paper sack and the newspapers slung over my shoulders, sometimes two if it was a Wednesday paper with lots of ads. My shirt would be drenched by the time I was done and it was everything I could do to keep the papers from getting damp as well.

Those were the days when an ice cold glass of lemonade would taste especially good–probably the nearest thing we had back then to Gatorade. And often back then, it wasn’t from mixes but made with real lemons and plenty of sugar. Probably not the greatest for our teeth, but who was thinking of teeth in that weather!

Sometimes we beat the heat at movie matinees at the Schenley Theater. Theaters advertised their air conditioning, which sometimes may have been more of a draw than the movies! Double features were even better because you could spend a whole afternoon in blissful air conditioning.

The evenings may have been the worst when you tried to get to get to sleep. Often it wouldn’t cool down that much because the humidity held the heat. You might try sleeping on a porch to catch any breeze. We had a fan, but on nights like this, it seemed you just lay there with as little on as possible and prayed for any movement of air to cool you enough to drop off to sleep. There might have been a few hours of early morning where it sort of got comfortable.

I think the only thing that probably got us through sometimes was remembering that it was better than shoveling a foot of snow, and the gray, cold days of winter. And, at least in early August, we weren’t in school!

I’d love to hear your “dog days” memories and how you beat the heat!